I stared at the painting for a full three minutes before I became self-conscious of the desk attendant wondering if I had entered into some sort of trance. Even after moving on to look at some of the other paintings, capturing the essence of Jesus’ ministry in scripture I kept wandering back to snatch glimpses wondering if I had really seen what I experienced as I gazed at the image of Jesus surrounded by little children.
On a lunch break from a class in the M.A. program I’m in at Wheaton, I wandered into the Billy Graham Center Museum, curious to see which artist was featured this month. I’ve always liked visiting the museum and have made a point to go every time I’m at Wheaton. Entering the dark gallery feels like a sacred space of beauty, creativity and the presence of the Holy Spirit waiting to speak to me through photographs, sculptures and paintings. Currently, the exhibit of the Life of Christ, The Drawings of Robert Doares features an amazing scope of paintings depicting scenes from Jesus’ life. I wasn’t particularly interested in this group of paintings, but I always jump at the chance to see artwork.
Feeling tired from my week in class, I tried to quietly view the paintings, savoring the silence and the beauty. However, there was a group of middle aged women wandering around viewing the paintings on some kind of tour. My irritation with them grew as they loudly discussed their lunch plans, their blood-sugar levels dropping and whether they should come back to the museum after fueling up with an appropriate amount of carbohydrates. “shut up! I thought- can’t you just be quiet and enjoy the majesty of these paintings without wanting to move on to the next thing?” Clearly I was more tired from my week of class than I realized. I prayed to be patient with these ladies and that they would indeed leave soon so I could be by myself in the gallery.
I continued to wander around, looking at the depiction of the disciples asking Jesus when the temple would be destroyed, of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness depicting him surrounded by all kinds of animals. Birds, cheetahs, antelopes- and I thought, sure why would the animals NOT want to be near Jesus, he created them! I was also jealous that Jesus got to pet a cheetah without being mauled to death. I guess those are one of the benefits of being the Lord of the universe.
Most of the paintings were in black and white and so when I came to the painting in full, brilliant color of Jesus blessing the little children from Matthew 19:13-15- I stopped in my tracks. For the past four years I’ve been preaching about how the gospel intersects with the issue of human trafficking, the value God has for the life of all people, especially children. In this portion of scripture Jesus’ kindness towards children is illustrated when babies were brought to him to be touched. Jesus’ disciples would have been caught off guard by the screaming, lauging children that climbed up into Jesus’ lap or put their sticky hands in his beard. They tried to play bodyguards and divert the mothers hopeful that their bright-eyed son or daughter would receive a special blessing from Jesus. Rather than shooing them away, Jesus speaks directly to the children;
“let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Though I have spoken to college students, often prideful of their accomplishments or goodness about how there is something about the innocence and faith of children that God sees as necessary for us to receive the kingdom of God. How his kingdom that is comprised of priorities, attitudes and actions that line up with God’s desires for our lives and the world and how Jesus tells us that it is those who receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will experience his blessing, forgiveness and mercy.
God had something entirely different for me as I gazed at the portrait of him surrounded by toddlers. My son Reuben is two and ½ years old, and in the past month has begun to enter the whiny, demanding, milk-dumping all over the coffee table stage of the terrible twos. I love spending time with him, hearing his laugh when I tickle him, watching him talk to his trains as he plays with them, holding his little hand in mine as we pray before each meal. But having a toddler guarantees a high-level of constant stress and demand every day. It feels chaotic at times, wondering how I’m going to prepare a talk to give or a training session, clean up the puddle of pee that has appeared in our living room after he’s had an accident and somehow ensure he has a clean bathtub to bathe in. I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed lately, angry and resentful at times and not sure where Jesus is in the chaos of raising a toddler. And most times I think I should just be strong, muscle through and escape as I listen to Gwen Stefani on Pandora as I fill the dishwasher each night.
But as I gazed at this painting and the tender yet confident way Jesus looked at the baby he was cradling, I was struck that Jesus is present in the joyful and stressful children bring to life. Not only that, he welcomes it! And consequently, he welcomes mothers letting them know- you are welcome to be with me. You don’t have to get your kid cleaned up or be embarrassed that they throw a temper tantrum or pee their pants, theirs is the kingdom of God. Thinking back to the culture of the Jews in Jesus time, this would have been so extraordinary- a spiritual leader like Jesus not excluding women and saying because of your gender and the children you have to go worship in this separate area. He welcomes them into the presence of God at the place they’re at in life.
It’s an intriguing scene looking at the expressions on the faces of each person in the painting- the grateful ways the women look at Jesus as he interacts with the children, their delight in the gifts God has given them in their offspring, the quizzical, shocked and disturbed faces of some of the male and female onlookers to this scene. And the joy in the midst of the chaos of children picking flowers, running around, sucking their thumbs, being tossed in the air. I was so struck how Jesus welcomes me and my son into his presence, that he loves us not because of what we can do, the awesome talk I might give or how many students I can train. He loves me because I’m his daughter, and he delights in me and wants to bless me as I humbly choose to experience his kingdom daily. This experience was so intimate that I almost hesitate to share it with people- in a culture that values the façade of strength, resilience, and power it feels so counter cultural to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Not because of what I can do, but because of who God is making me to become. But that’s the kingdom of God- different than what we expect- it catches us off guard, opens our hearts to the reality of God’s love for us, just as we are and the ways he wants us to live out his kingdom on earth, in our neighborhoods, with our families and even how we value ourselves.
Jesus wants to enter our chaos, no matter where we are at in life. In fact, I’m guessing perhaps even for you he’s already but you haven’t been aware of the ways he has been demonstrating his love to you. I want to invite you wherever you are at spiritually, to choose to be open to how Jesus might want to enter the chaos of your life with kids, with school, your spouse, your job. I believe that God wants to show you his love for you and to strengthen you and give you peace through the chaos because he is present.